Japan in coronavirus crisis is in a similar shape as the wartime

When did you start to feel the impact of the coronavirus?

“We had performances of ‘Kyokou no Gekidan (Theatrical Company Fabrication)’*1 planned from the middle of May.  Expecting that situations to improve by then, we were rehearsing with reduced number of people until the end of April.  But on May 4th, extension of the state of emergency was announced and we decided to give up and cancel the performances.”

Was the economic loss quite significant?

“It was considerable.  Without any precedent, we are still calculating the amount.  Although the income from cancelled performances became zero, we cannot cancel all the payments, because there were people who worked for us and the actors were rehearsing.  We had no idea how much to pay, so there was a lot of confusion in the theater industry.”

The music industry was also hit hard, but some people were holding on to the end, saying, ‘rock music should not depend on money from the government.’

“It’s not good, isn’t it — how the artists are defiant for the better or worse.  Ever since the state of emergency was announced, I have kept saying on Twitter, ‘Compensation for business suspension request,’ but even people in the theater industry raised questions like ‘Why would you ask government for money?’  I had never imagined that I would end up writing about ‘how tax is different from annual tribute’ in this 21st century.  I also tweeted, ‘Tax is paid by citizens as expenses for public good and services.  Annual tribute is a tribute.  It’s only right to ask for taxes paid when the citizens are suffering.  Annual tribute is different.  It cannot be returned.’

When the British government started discussing the idea of business suspension, London’s theater industry strongly insisted that government should officially order business closure and compensate rather than asking for suspension.  Then there was lockdown, and in July, the British government announced a financial support of about 210 billion yen for theaters and concert halls.  That was different from what was happening in Japan.”

By the way, is Sustaining Businesses Benefit the only financial support from the government for the theater industry in Japan?

“I wonder whose idea this was, but they are saying no backdated compensation at all.  So, we want compensation for the performances cancelled from February to June, but they won’t allow it.  Instead, there would subsidize about half of the expenses for future performances.  This is the same idea as ‘Go To Travel Campaign *2.’  I think, if the government wants to support the struggling tourism industry, why don’t they just give Sustaining Businesses Benefit?”

So it looks like future performances that have been scheduled will be compensated.  But there is no support for the performances during the self-restraint period, since it was not legally enforceable and ‘voluntary.’  On the other hand, any activities during the self-restraint period were put under pressure by ‘the general public’ acting as ‘self-restraint police.’

“I think the coronavirus crisis has brought to light the Japanese aspect of the general public in the worst way.  And that is the ‘peer pressure’.  The worst side of the general public was revealed through media such as SNS.

In 1940, Japan issued a ministerial order, ‘The 7.7 prohibition.’  This basically said, ‘Do not buy luxury items.’  A slogan also came up, which said, ‘If you are Japanese, you should not want luxuries.’  This led to an atmosphere where anyone who is extravagant, is not Japanese.  In those days, neighborhood groups and Women’s Society for National Defense were checking if people were compliant.  After the war, I thought such relationships have loosened and things got easier, but the Internet including Twitter is now playing the same role as the neighborhood groups and Women’s Society for National Defense.  Of course, I don’t mean to deny the Internet itself, but for better or worse, the coronavirus arrived when the Internet is prevalent throughout the society.”

I see.

“I’m always saying, ‘Tens of thousands PCR test should be done every day using the drive-thru method’, when I tweeted this, I receive replies like ‘Do you want to destroy the healthcare system’, or ‘Don’t you know about false positives’.  But we cannot plan our tactics unless we collect data.  Lack of data is also like the wartime.  When I did some research, I found that Japan stopped collecting accurate data after a series of defeats since the Battle of Midway.  They were not hiding data.  They were not able to collect data and they stopped.

There is this famous story of ‘The Formosa Air Battle’.  In 1944, it was announced that the Imperial Navy intercepted the American forces off the coast of Taiwan, ‘sinking 11 and destroyed 8 of enemy aircraft carriers’, making a big fuss about this military achievement.  When the Army learned of the Navy’s announcement, they changed their defense operation plan for the Philippines and decided to intercept the American forces.  However, the reality was that the Navy had not sunk any of the aircraft carriers.  Navy realized this, but they would not correct their statement to save face.  The Army thought that the American aircraft carriers had been sunk, so they sent their troops to the Philippines.  But was defeated by swarm of aircrafts, which flew from the supposedly destroyed aircraft carriers.  In this coronavirus crisis again, Japan lacks accurate data.”

Afraid of making things visible? (wry smile)

“Maybe Japanese people lack the strength to face reality in adversity.  I wonder what this mentality is. (wry smile)”

*1‘Kyokou no Gekidan (Theatrical Company Fabrication)’…A theatrical company run by Thirdstage, Inc. and led by Shoji Kokami.  Seven young actors selected through auditions belong to the company.  They had announced to suspend activities after their performances of “Nihonjin No Heso (The navel of Japanese People)” in May-June 2020, but the performance has been cancelled.

*2 Go To Travel Campaign…An economic policy implemented by the Japanese government to stimulate demand in tourism, which was hit severely by the impact of the novel coronavirus.  The campaign was started in July before the coronavirus was subdued. Tokyo was temporarily “excluded” from the campaign due to the increase of the people infected, but the government was criticized for starting it with many inconsistencies and problems.

A scene from the 13th performance of ‘How to walk on another Earth.’ by Kyokou no Gekidan (Theatrical Company Fabrication).  During self-restraint period, the past performances of Kokami’s works are made available via rental distribution on Thirdstage’s Filmuy (https://filmuy.com/thirdstage). Photo by Aki Tanaka

“Power of Art” realized during self-restraint period

How did you spend days after the state of emergency declaration?

“As the theatrical performances were cancelled, I wondered how I should maintain my mental state.  During the self-restraint period, I read books in a park during the day and wrote manuscripts that were due at night.  I thought I needed to absorb something and be creative, but those were not enough to support myself.  In that sense, ‘Crash Landing on You’ (Korean TV Drama) saved me (LOL).  After all, art is something that questions, ‘Are you okay like that,’ while entertainment is something that affirms, ‘You are okay like that.’  In peaceful times, you can accept the question posed by art and work hard, but it is quite difficult under these circumstances, isn’t it?  Of course, great works have both elements of entertainment and art, but I strongly felt the power of entertainment that unconditionally affirms oneself during the stay-home period.”

In the theater world, there are new plays distributed on ZOOM, but being unable to perform at theaters may make you feel deprived.

“I had more means of escape than others being a director and a playwright.  I had never spent so much time on writing before.  After this experience, it occurred to me that I was well balanced, because as director, I was able to interact with a variety of people at rehearsals and had others correct my assumptions.

So, I am worried about people who are focusing only on directing.  Because directors are the ones who are truly deprived.  I think they are distributing plays on ZOOM, as they are more desperate than people like me who has an escape as a writer.  I don’t deny using ZOOM, and think it is a possibility, but I also think everybody believes, in principle that a play should be experienced in the theater.  However, it is useless to complain, so I took part in the reading of the broadcast, I think people are trying to survive with what they can do now.  So, it’s like a step toward having a performance in the theater, and wanting to tell everyone, ‘Don’t forget the theater.’ Theatrical performance is not dead yet, but another declaration of the state of emergency will kill it.”

When there were calls for “compensation” from the theatrical circles during the stay-home period, they were heavily criticized.

“This coronavirus crisis made me realize that theatrical performances were very distant from everyone.  The fact that we were criticized for voicing need for ‘compensation for business suspension request’ was a strong message that theatrical performances wasn’t familiar to the people.  All the theater people were faced with this reality, and we are reflecting on it.  So, from now on, we need to make theatrical performances more familiar to the people.”

From the rehearsal studio for stage performance written/directed by Shoji Kokami

Knowing the mechanism surrounding you

What views, news or events did you find impressive or unforgettable during the coronavirus crisis?

“When I look back on coronavirus crisis later, I will probably recall it along with how my SNS stirred up a storm online.  To my tweet calling for ‘compensation for business suspension request’, I received many replies like, ‘You are usually self-important, but its money after all?’ ‘Are you a beggar?’ or ‘You’re doing what you want, so it’s natural to go bankrupt.’  Among them, most shocking comment was ‘Don’t complain if you are doing what you like.’  Then I wrote my thoughts against this comment in a magazine ‘SPA!’ and was criticized as well.  That broke my heart a little and took me some time to recover.  But I also thought that everyone must be desperate.”

I think it is true that people were desperate and under a lot of stress.  It was like “I am enduring it, so you must endure it too,” right?

“I think what we are repeatedly told as a child – ‘be a person who doesn’t bother others’ plays a large role.  And I think these are cursed words.  What we should be saying is don’t commit crimes, but the crime rate is already low in Japan compared with Western countries.  Japanese people are law-abiding.  Since it is natural to obey the laws, instead they say, ‘be a person who doesn’t bother others.’  As you keep hearing these cursed words, we become oversensitive to the nuisance of others.  I think this country will change considerably if everyone realizes the danger of using this expression, not to be a person who bothers others.”

It’s the same as people infected with coronavirus apologizing, isn’t it?

“Officially, everyone says, ‘There is no need to apologize.’ but before we knew it, there was this growing atmosphere of blaming the infected people.  There was a news report in July that a police officer was infected with the coronavirus at a sex-industry.  The officer was told to get tested but didn’t until he was transported by an ambulance.  It was probably because he was afraid, that his life as he knows it will be over, if people found out where he was infected with coronavirus.”

It may depend on the country, but what are the reactions overseas?

“Reactions in the West are basically, what is done is done.  A famous American news anchor was infected and appeared on the show from home, but there was no apology.

In other countries, they have ‘society’ not the Japanese concept of ‘the general public.’  General public for the Japanese is a circle of acquaintances, such as people at schools, companies, community and the neighborhood.  But society is a world with strangers.  And the society is bound by clear rules of law.  Rules among the general public have positive aspects such as kindness or bond, but the flip side can be self-restraint police.  This means, ‘I am watching you.’  Unlike the rules of law, the general public’s rules are unwritten, therefore crueler.

When lockdown was imposed in other countries, taking a walk was banned by law, except walking the dog.  So, some people started to go out wearing a dog suit and ended up paying a fine to the police (LOL).  If you did this in Japan, I think their names, addresses and even their parent’s addresses would be exposed on the Internet.  Caring for each other and strengthening the bond at normal times is nice, but I think Japanese people should know how negative it can become under these circumstances.  In Japan, rules of the general public can be far stricter than the rules of laws, but there is no basis for its severity.”

In a way, a battle against “the general public” is a fight against an invisible enemy, isn’t it?  If the enemy is visible, you can train your body and increase weapons, but how can we fight against an invisible enemy?  In the past interview, you said, “Be stronger as an individual.”

“Rather than being stronger, I think the only way is ‘to be wiser as an individual.’  So, I think we need to know a little about the mechanism that surrounds us.”

The mechanism is what you keep referring to as “the general public,” right?  But I think it is difficult to be wiser with so much information.

“It is really difficult.  When some celebrities commented on the bill to revise the Public Prosecutors’ Office Act, some people cried out that those who haven’t studied shouldn’t talk about it, but it is actually impossible to study it completely.  For instance, regarding the compensation under this coronavirus crisis, the logic goes, ‘According to MMT’s view, government can accumulate as much debt as they want in their own currency,’ but there are countless economic counterarguments to this logic.  If you must study completely before talking about it, it would take 50 years to study the pros and cons of MMT (LOL).  So, I think it is okay for everyone to find someone they can trust and be on the same page and oppose the same idea.  It is impossible to know everything, it’s okay for us to share the thinking.”

If you are to raise a question to the readers through the coronavirus crisis, what would it be?

“When I had an interview with Mikako Brady the other day, she told me that her son who is in middle-school said, ‘Japan does not have confidence in a society.’  And I thought, this would be my theme for the rest of my life, although it’s a theme I picked up from a middle-school boy (LOL).  So, my question would be, ‘What should we do to build confidence in society.’”

Finally, do you think coronavirus can be a theme of your work as a writer – Shoji Kokami?

“I think the fact that a community can turn so violent, can be a theme.  But I prefer to laugh about tough situations in my works.  What kind of stance can make us laugh at this coronavirus crisis is something I am struggling with every day.

The reason I was captivated by ‘Crash Landing on You’ was mainly because it has a comedic tone.  I wouldn’t be captivated by it, if it was just a cross-border love story.  I was struck by the mental strength of making the issue of South and North Koreas into a comedy.  So, when I am to write about coronavirus crisis, I wouldn’t be able to do it unless I find a stance which is both tragic and comedic, enabling us to laugh at how we bumbled through the crisis.”

A scene from the 8th performances by Theatrical Company Kyokou, ‘Festival of Intolerance.’ A work in which Kokami depicts an intolerant modern society.  Photo by Aki Tanaka https://filmuy.com/thirdstage/video/420172513

Shoji Kokami

Born in Ehime Prefecture in 1958.  Founded a theatrical company ‘The Third Theater’ in 1981, overseeing playwriting/directing.  Received Kinokuniya Drama Award for ‘With a Sunset Like the Morning Sun’ in 1987, Kishida Kunio Playwright Award for ‘Snufkin’s Letter’ in 1994, Yomiuri Prize for Literature for ‘Globe Jungle’ in 2009.  In 2001, Theatrical Company ‘The Third Theater’ suspended their activities for 10 years. His current activities centers around playwriting/directing at ‘KOKAMI@network’ and ‘Kyokou no Gekidan (Theatrical Company Fabrication).’


Interviewed by Joe Yokomizo on 21st July, 2020